The question is: trust you to do what?

Politicians’ efforts to ‘restore public trust’ suggest they see the public as a passive blob to be moulded at will.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

Confucius told his disciple Tsze-Kung that three things are necessary for government: food, weapons and trust. If a ruler is struggling to hold on to all three, he must first relinquish weapons, and then food. Trust, however, must be retained until the very end. For ‘without trust’, Confucius concluded, ‘we cannot stand’ (1).

Although it’s difficult right now to imagine anyone in the British political class prepared to give up anything without claiming it back in expenses, the one thing that does seem to have been rather freely given away is the trust of the public. This, at least, is the conventional narrative: that due to their grasping, clawing, self-serving ways, MPs have abrogated their responsibility as public servants. They have, in short, betrayed the public’s trust. As human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy put it recently: ‘The public think too many politicians are fired by self-interest and careerism rather than by a passion to make our society better.’

On the face of it, there does seem to be plenty of evidence that for many MPs making society better comes a distant second to furnishing second homes. If the sleaze scandals of the 1990s revealed the sullied nature of the then ruling Conservative Party, today’s expenses scandal seemingly unveils the entire political class as money-grubbing hypocrites. While politicians might be keen to talk up the joys of recession-age austerity, they seem to have been very busy suffering the pain of state-funded luxury. We, the public, don’t trust them, so the story goes, because, isolated in pampered indulgence at the Palace of Westminster, they have become manifestly less trustworthy.

If a crisis of public trust is identified as the problem, it’s little wonder that the solution, in the parlance of the day, is ‘to restore trust’. The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called for a return to politics as a vocation: ‘If we are to restore trust in our political class, we need to know something about what they’re glad to do for its own sake.’ Kennedy writes that ‘to restore public trust’, there needs to be a ‘root-and-branch reform’ of parliament. And over the past week, a veritable thicket of ‘root-and-branch’ reforms has been proposed. Proportional representation, limited terms for MPs, written constitutions, reduced numbers of MPs, reduction in executive power. No politician or media outlet has missed the opportunity to say what should be reformed, all in the name of restoring the public’s trust.

Underpinning these sometimes arcane constitutional discussions is the idea that ‘trust’ is something that can be constructed. Reform becomes a means to rebuild this thing called trust. Hence the deadening mantra that accompanies the proposed reforms: accountability and transparency. The logic runs as follows: if politicians have become increasingly untrustworthy there must be more mechanisms and regulations in place to render their actions and behaviour transparent and, therefore, accountable. As Guardian columnist and New Labour conscience Polly Toynbee writes: ‘Nefarious practices thrive in any dark corners of politics unchecked by scrutiny or competition.’ Almost Tony Blair-esque in his ability to echo a media-refracted public mood, Tory leader David Cameron demurred: ‘Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability we must take power away from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street.’

What is driving this notion of trust as a thing to be made through reform – as if thoroughly exposing politicians to continual public gaze will restore people’s trust – is a degradingly passive idea of citizenry. Long criticised for being a charade of democracy, parliamentary politics now threatens to become even more of a spectacle. ‘Trust’ will become something that the political class simply displays for public consumption.

For all the talk of trust in political circles right now, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of trust. For trust is not simply a passive relation, in which one side painfully, excruciatingly exhibits its trustworthiness to the other. Rather it is an active relation in which both parties assume something of each other. Trust is not based on knowing, but presuming. Trust, properly speaking, exists in the absence of guarantees. It is an everyday leap of faith, a reliance, indeed a belief in others to behave as you would expect them to.

In this sense, the focus on trust as something to be constructed so as to eliminate the corrupting self-interest of parliamentarians does not seem to have much to do with trust at all. In fact, the attempts to prevent so-called abuses of trust, under the rubric of accountability and transparency, serve only to undermine the conditions of trust. For trust rests on a belief in others, not on their guaranteed compliance. In this sense, trust is something that people actively place in politicians on the basis of a politicians’ vision. Trust cannot simply be created by politicians in lieu of the very thing worth placing trust in them for: namely their politics.

And this perhaps explains the great paradox of trust-constructing reforms. Since the anti-sleaze agenda pursued by New Labour in the mid-Nineties, ever-greater public sector transparency and accountability have gone hand-in-hand with ever-greater levels of public mistrust. The measures, rules and regulations designed to create trust have only fostered a culture a suspicion and cynicism. Untrustworthiness, it seems, once presumed, proceeds to find itself everywhere.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

(1) Cited in Onora O’Neill’s excellent 2002 Reith lectures on A Question of Trust.

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Topics Politics UK